"Not a monster queen": A.N. Wilson believes Elizabethan torture was a "cult" invented by martyrologists
Erasmus, that Renaissance man par excellence, said book lovers are not those who keep pristine editions under lock and key but those who dog-ear and annotate books, "who prefer the marks of a fault they have erased to a neat copy full of faults". This being so, I must love A.N. Wilson's latest book The Elizabethans. I've scrawled all over it in the process of correcting its faults.
Wilson never fails to provoke, and he particularly enjoys provoking Roman Catholics. In the case of The Elizabethans you don't have to be a Catholic to see that Wilson has an agenda, and that he is willing to pursue his agenda, even if it means contradicting himself. On the surface, that agenda is to create through short chapters arranged like poly-phonic voices an impression of playful complexity: Elizabethan England in all its variety. Wilson's deeper agenda is to promote a national identity built on the "doughty Protestantism" of that necessarily compromised invention "the Church of England". In Wilson's narrative, the Elizabethan Church of England is always unifying, never divisive, always tolerant, repressive only out of necessity, and always intellectually rigorous, unlike Catholicism which indulges in "double-think".
In "attempting to acclimatise ourselves" to the sociopolitical realities of Elizabethan England, Wilson comments, "we must resist the laziness of parallel...Rather than draw modern parallels we must continually re-enter the Elizabethan world." Yet Wilson's favourite parallel is to cast recusant Catholics as Islamist suicide bombers, a parallel in which every papal bull is a "fatwa" and every Jesuit priest a traitor to his country. It's a lazy comparison, because where England's Catholics were concerned to achieve freedom quietly to profess their faith without being forced to answer the "Bloody Question" (whether they professed loyalty to the monarch or the Pope), today's British Muslims take religious freedom and participation in British political and intellectual life as inalienable rights.